Many commercial architects think it’s easy to design a custom home. Going from bigger building types to a smaller one is a breeze. Right? If you’re a residential architect who’s also done commercial work, you’re chuckling now. You understand the thousands of decisions that go into a one-off dwelling, not to mention the deep knowledge of relevant building codes it requires.
Seattle-based commercial architect David Van Galen, AIA, had no such hubris when he set out to design a getaway for himself and his wife, Jane, on nearby Whidbey Island. He wisely consulted with a local residential architect about codes, and, even more critically, he hired a fantastic custom builder to guide the production and the process. The ace in the hole? His builder, Dan Neumeyer, also has an architecture degree from UC Berkeley.
David and his wife, who have a water-view condo in the city, have been coming to this scenic island, the largest near Seattle, for several decades. About seven years ago, they began looking for property to build on. Most people who build second homes on Whidbey Island are drawn to its edges, but David and Jane were open to landlocked sites. “We found this site about 1.5 miles out of Langley. It’s off a road with a rolling meadow that goes back to the woods. In the distance is a wall of Doug firs, and then the land drops into a ravine,” he recalls. “All these things were happening on a 5-acre site.”
In his mind’s eye, the house he envisioned was small and clad in COR-TEN, a building that would weather into the landscape, blending in with the reddish hues of the Doug firs and second-growth alders. His builder, Dan, who cut his teeth as a young contractor building decks, trellises, and yurts, embraced both the design goal and the thoughtful process it took to achieve. “Our specialty is building smaller, more sustainable houses with an emphasis on craft—on the things people touch,” says Dan.
“Dan made us walk the site while we talked about the project,” David recalls. Together, they agreed that preserving much of the site’s contours and specimen trees was a chief concern. “One of the primary drivers was that we wanted the thing to set real lightly into the space,” he continues. “We wanted to make a gentle place in the woods—get in touch with the seasons.”
David and Jane placed yellow tape on some 50 or 60 trees, which drew the attention of their young off-the-grid neighbors. “They stopped by and asked us sheepishly what the trees were marked for.” They were very relieved to learn they were to be protected. After labeling the trees and contemplating a number of different areas to site the house, they settled on the edge of the ravine. “It’s that liminal area between two ecosystems with the forest in the background. We wanted to be participants in the woods, not just visitors,” he says. In this liminal zone, the alders rise up from the ravine and thick ferns coat the ground. Interspersed are clusters of fir, along with the occasional, majestic outlier.
The original concept was a single, slightly larger house with the primary bedroom placed up high, overlooking the ravine. The rest of the program called for a large open room for kitchen, living, and dining, and a studio space that could flex for guests. As design development progressed, David split the one building in two—the main house with that aviary bedroom and an adjacent studio building that could accommodate the occasional overnight visitor.
“The single house by itself had an object quality,” he says. “But the two buildings feel much more connected to the site, and they create this wonderful space between them. We love that in-between space and the deck that connects them.”
The result looks effortless, but it’s a good thing the architect was not paying himself by the hour as he wrangled the two buildings into that perfect arrangement. “Originally, I had both sheds in sawtooth arrangements, then I flipped them so they inflected toward each other,” he explains. “I definitely spent some time fussing with the angle of the two to get it just right.”
His contractor was equally fastidious about the decking, harkening back to his early roots. “It was like the old days building decks in Berkeley,” says Dan. “I wanted the angles just right, so they seemed logical and didn’t detract from the effect. I’d lay boards on the ground and then climb up on the roof to see how they looked. And then make sketches, mock-ups, and adjustments.”
Work in Progress
Improvisation and value-engineering were constant refrains during the process. David’s plans for more extensive sheltering roof overhangs came in too pricey, so he trimmed them back to just a pair for each building, terminating at the long ends. “Instead of the overhangs at the broad end, I turned the rake detail into a reveal instead of a projection,” he recalls. “I had thought the larger projections were cool, but once I made the change, the house just settled into the site in my mind. It’s much quieter and feels much more connected to the site and the tree canopy.”
Steel moment frames also gave way to thriftier shear walls. And stained cedar takes the place of charred wood elements, except for a small splurge of it on the shed. Such economies helped finance expensive site work, such as the crane and scaffolding Dan needed to hoist windows into place over the 30-foot ravine.
What the small buildings sacrificed in square footage (the main house is just 918 square feet; the shed is 223 square feet) they make up in volume. At 6 foot 8 inches tall, David could not afford to skimp on ceiling height. That volume allowed him to play with compression and release in several areas of the main house, articulating different zones within the small space. The living area, located under the loft bedroom, is cozier for its dropped, exposed ceiling, but the ceiling soars over the kitchen and dining areas. A restrained palette of materials allows the eye to roam freely, often to the north wall’s abundant glazing.
“We wanted this single space to feel really expansive, but to have some intimacy to it,” he says. “Developing a variety of spaces within the space is what makes it feel good. The loft is treated as an insertion sitting within the larger space.” Service areas and more restrained glazing occupy the south wall, and David made sure to leave an area clear for a future main floor bedroom addition, if he and his wife no longer wish to ascend the spiral stair.
Outside, an elevated deck off the living room and one off the loft bedroom reach to the west to grab the summer sunlight and warmth. “The summertime is the only time you want to be outside. Otherwise, it can get very gloomy in the winter and fall, with a constant drizzle.”
In the studio building, an insulated garage door retracts to turn the whole space al fresco. Materials and surfaces are no-fuss, with cork floors and plywood walls where David can pin his watercolors up to dry. A wall unit converts from a pulldown work table into a guest bed. High windows and the glazed garage door ensure plenty of natural light permeates the space.
Small, tall, and mighty, the compound supports the daily activities of a multidimensional couple and occasional guests. It immerses them in nature’s ever-changing panorama, and will, over time, show the influence of her seasoning. Although the house evolved over the entire process of design and construction, it still hewed to David’s original vision of a “house covered in COR-TEN.”
At one point he wavered on that decision, too, but Jane gently intervened: “My concern was that everyone was using COR-TEN out here,” he recalls. “But my wife said, ‘You know, Michelangelo didn’t say I can’t use marble because Brunelleschi used so much of it.’ The house just wanted to be that.”
Plans and Drawings
Little House/Big Shed
Whidbey Island, Washington
ARCHITECT: David M. Van Galen, AIA, Seattle
BUILDER: Dan Neumeyer, Jade Craftsman Builders, Freemont, Washington
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Moffett & Moffett Landscape, Langley, Washington
CONSULTING ARCHITECT: Matthew Swett, Taproot Architects, Langley, Washington
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Swenson Say Fagét, Seattle
PROJECT SIZE: 918 square feet (house); 223 square feet (studio)
SITE SIZE: 5 acres
PHOTOGRAPHER: Lara Swimmer Photography
CEILING FANS: The Modern Fan Co. Ball fan
CLADDING: Bridger Steel vertical shiplap COR-TEN
COOKING APPLIANCES: Miele
COUNTERTOPS: PentalQuartz Coastal Gray, polished
DECKING: Envison EverGrain composite decking, Cape Cod Grey
ENTRY DOORS/DOOR HARDWARE: Simpson Door Company; Emtek Helios Hardware; Linnea
FAUCETS: Grohe (kitchen); Hansgrohe (bathrooms)
HVAC/RADIANT SYSTEM: Daikin air-to-heat water pump
LIGHTING: BEGA (exterior); Juno (track lighting); Vibia Halo Lineal pendant (dining); Sonneman Stix (wall mount)
PHOTOVOLTAICS: Whidbey Sun & Wind Silfab PV Modules (9.3 kW)
ROOFING: Champion Metal standing seam Zincalume
SINKS: Elkay (kitchen); Lacava (bathrooms)
SPIRAL STAIR: Salter Spiral Stair
WATER HEATER: Rheem hybrid electric water heater
WATER SOFTENING: Culligan
WINDOWS: JELD-WEN EpicVue
WINDOW SYSTEMS: LaCantina folding doors (living area); Overhead Door (shed studio)
WOOD STOVE: Morsø